Monday, February 13, 2017

Sugar Hill (1974), by Paul Maslansky

I think I've said it before, but I am grateful to my fellow critics. Obviously, I would have never seen these films if someone in the world hadn't recommended them to me, however indirectly they did so. If your main hobbies are like mine and include watching movie reviews to cover up for the pain and horror of being utterly insignificant, you'll begin to recognize cinematic trends, sub-trends, and sub-sub-trends within the big chunky genres you previously took for granted. Studying blaxploitation for example will lead one to the genre's outset as the "race pictures" made between the 1910s and the 1950s, starring all black casts and marketed to all black audiences--films that reinforced segregation but nonetheless encouraged and enabled black creators and black representation in the media. Race pictures became blaxploitation in the early '70s, arguably beginning with the mandatory Black Panthers initiation watch subject Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971. Blaxploitation has continued long since the death of '70s funk, or at least, genre films made by and starring black people have continued. Some that come to mind are Black Devil Doll from Hell, Tales from the Quadead Zone, Devil Snow, Ax 'Em, and Don't Play With Me. Because these are movies that I like they are probably not the most flattering examples of this, but I considered them all to be truly wonderful films. You can even see movies today that get theater showings which arguably carry on the blaxploitation spirit, in the form of the films of Tyler Perry, which, despite being shredded by critics, do get high audience scores and even get the dubious distinction of top billing at my workplace's Redbox.

And of course there were and are blaxploitation horror films. That is one of those sub-trends I mentioned above: in 1972, of course, we had Blacula, which heralded such films as Blackenstein, Ganja and Hess, and Abby. There had been earlier black-produced horror films, such as the ever-elusive Drums o' Voodoo from 1934, but this new vein was often crossed with the badass protagonists and dicey gang politics of the crime-oriented blaxploitation movies. This is the ground from which Sugar Hill grows, and admittedly I have not seen any of the other famous '70s Blaxploitation movies, by the simple merit of Sugar Hill ranking higher on my priority lists. The reviews always made it sound like a blast, and a blast it is. If Blacula and the others are as good as this, then I have a lot to look forward to.

The plot is pretty straightforward, especially by blaxploitation standards, save for the zombies. Black people own a club, white people wanna steal it. In this case, it's Diana "Sugar" Hill and her boyfriend Langston who own Club Voodoo, subject of intended theft by white crime lord Morgan. When Langston refuses to give in, Morgan kills him, prompting Sugar's quest for vengeance. Fortunately, the voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse can help her. Sugar makes a pact with the witch and Baron Samedi, the voodoo lord of the dead, to receive an army of turkey-killing zombies. Soon everyone in town is paying for the price for offing Sugar's man. Will Sugar manage to find her special brand of justice?

By the end of the thing you'll be hoping she does. The film casts its leads well. While the entire cast puts on a good performance, the black actors shine the brightest, especially Marki Bey as Sugar Hill, who presents a genuinely sympathetic, attractive, and badass voodoo queen, and Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi, who is one of the hammiest hams to ever beautifully ham. Those two are charming and you get attached to them. Baron Samedi in particular is a very strange and intriguing character. He is in some ways a continuation of the character of the same name from Live and Let Die, and that version of Baron Samedi was the only reason why most of us watched that movie to begin with. Sometimes he goofs off; sometimes he's menacing; sometimes he's mocking, especially when he's talking to white people. When white people think they can boss him around, he starts talking like, well...let's just say it's sort of like a banned Warner Brothers cartoon. It's kind of jarring to hear, but the movie makes it clear that all parties know that he's doing it to piss these people off. Because what are they going to do? This isn't a guy calling himself Baron Samedi--he is a legitimate voodoo loa. Weapons are not going to work on him. He calls them out on their racism, and when they try to shove him and Sugar down for that (instead of, y'know, stopping the whole being racist thing), they are killed by zombies. Baron Samedi's got a system, and the system works.

Helping you root for the heroes is the fact that the white people in this movie are bastards. Sure, sometimes they have a glimmer of respectability, but basically all of them spout the n-word whenever they get a chance, and pull all sorts of bullshit about "betters" and the like. Worst of them all is Celeste, Morgan's girlfriend, who is so racist that even he shrugs her off like a rotten corpse. She drops the n-bomb more than anyone in the film, and takes a personal jealousy in Morgan's wandering eyes when Sugar's around. Naturally, she is saved for last, and her implied fate is so dark that I laughed at it out of astonishment. But you really can't feel bad for her.

That her death is memorable is impressive, given that whenever someone dies in this movie it's pretty great. That's because the zombies in this movie are great. They have these weird silver cups over their eyes, and they also have cobwebs all over them, even though they all seem to have been buried sans coffins in earthen graves. (Are underground spiders a thing? Should we fear them?) I swear to God that the first scene of the zombies rising from their graves goes on for ten minutes. For however long it is, it's not long enough. Intercut with scenes of these zombies crawling from the earth are shots of Mama Maitresse and Sugar Hill getting really excited over the prospect of having an army of zombies, along with Baron Samedi's sweet, sweet mugging. Whenever these zombies kill someone, it's usually done in a way that resists repetition, making each individual kill scene satisfying. The quirkiness of some of these deaths, along with their roots in vengeance, reminded me in a lot of fun ways of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Which is funny because I also realized that this movie almost shares a plot with Bad Magic. I guess a lot of revenge horror films have similarities.

If you want to get a good taste of archetypical '70s exploitation, Sugar Hill is a great start. If I have somehow failed to convince you, I should say that this movie's is a Motown funk piece called "Supernatural Voodoo Woman." The movie also contains a large, large building called "the Voodoo Museum and Research Library."

P.S. Originally this review was meant for January until I had to do some schedule rearranging for the site. In the course of it I forgot that February was Black History Month. I find it to be a happy coincidence that I post this now. I'd say that a movie where a bunch of black people avenge themselves on some racist white gangsters with zombies is a good anti-racist text. 

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